Among the many interesting outcomes of the recent elections was the rout of General (retired) JJ Singh, who contested on an Akali Dal ticket in Punjab. The former army chief’s decision to take on Amarinder Singh was a reckless move—spurred perhaps by the brusque superiority with which most generals tend to regard captains. On the campaign trail, JJ Singh courted controversy owing to his graceless and abusive references to his opponent. The general has got his comeuppance and lost his deposit. With the election out of the way, it is time to consider the pernicious consequences of senior military officers entering politics.
At the outset, it bears emphasising that the problem is with senior officers, especially former chiefs, in politics. While we have always had some politicians with military backgrounds—Amarinder Singh himself is a case in point—the trend of senior retired officers entering politics is more recent. And it is deeply problematic.
The suggestion that former generals should steer clear of politics tends to invite a series of retorts. As citizens don’t they have the right to contest elections? When retired senior bureaucrats and judges can enter politics why should we ask former military officers to stay away? If retired senior officers feel that they have more to contribute to their country why should they be stopped?
Underlying this cluster of questions is a lack of recognition of the military’s peculiar institutional place in a democratic polity. If the State is supposed to exercise a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, then the military is the ultimate instrument through which this monopoly is asserted. The extraordinary coercive power invested in this institution leads to the problem of how to guard ourselves against the guardians. There is no comparable challenge with the bureaucracy, the police or the judiciary.
To ensure democratic control of the military, states rely on a range of institutional mechanisms: systems of monitoring and accountability, reward and punishment, checks and balances, and above all, norms and values. The last is particularly important because the inculcation and reinforcement of norms and values such as professionalism and constitutional patriotism creates a distinct institutional identity for the military: As a sterile instrument of the State. Politicisation of the military is problematic because it dilutes this identity and turns it into a less reliable instrument of the State.
The military is a community with close ties between serving and retired soldiers. Politicisation of the latter will inevitably affect the former.
Over the past few years, we have seen politicisation of the military taking place in both directions. The BJP’s 2014 campaign was notable for its attempt to co-opt groups of ex-servicemen with the promise of one-rank one-pension. Further, the party gave a ticket to a former Army chief, General VK Singh, who had openly taken on the previous government and also rewarded him a ministerial berth.
The military should reflect on the consequences of this trend. The OROP episode amply underscored the danger of the military being treated as a special interest group by politicians. The coddling of the military by any political party will invariably lead others to follow suit or to look at it with suspicion. This will also colour public perceptions of the military as an institution.
Politicians too should ponder its implications. If generals start espousing partisan stances and if political parties embrace them precisely for that reason, then our institutional set-up of civil-military relations will be grievously harmed. It won’t be long before senior military officers are promoted on the basis on political affiliation rather than professional standing. Which prime minister would want to be advised by a military chief who may end up denouncing his government in public a couple of years down the line? Conversely, if a service chief is interested in a post-retirement political career will he really be non-partisan in office?
While senior military officers have a right to run for office they are under no obligation to exercise that right: Quite the contrary. Just because former chief election commissioners or chief justices have been ministers or members of Parliament, it doesn’t follow that service chiefs should aim to follow suit. The military is very different from other institutions and the costs of its politicisation will be very high. Our politics is lamentably peopled with many unsavoury characters, but it is not for soldiers to try and reform it. And if senior military officers feel they have more service left in them, they should deploy their talents outside of politics.
Now that the generals have been called out of retirement, perhaps it is naïve to hope that they will stay out. Still, let’s hope JJ Singh’s disastrous foray will serve as a deterrent to any general, air marshal or admiral eyeing politics.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal